What is Freedom? (5): Is Poverty a Denial of Our Freedom?

Freedom is commonly, but in my view mistakenly, defined in a narrow way, namely as the frustration of our goals or our choice of goals by the intentional (or, less restrictively, unintentional) actions of other human agents. These actions can be of two types:

  • intervention with or obstruction of our goals or choices,
  • or the removal or denial of the resources we need to achieve our goals or make our choices.

Most people would not call it a denial of freedom when our goals or choices are frustrated or obstructed by natural phenomena or other non-human causes. (More here).

Take the example of a tsunami washing away the only bridge connecting our home to the mainland, thereby making it impossible for us to achieve our goal of joining the mainland. This does not deny our freedom according to the common interpretation of freedom. However, when our authoritarian government prohibits us from using the bridge in order to join the mainland, then this is seen as a denial of our freedom. Our goals are the same in both cases, but the different causes that make it impossible for us to achieve our goals mark the difference between mere inability or lack of power on the one hand, and a lack of freedom on the other.

The origins of this common interpretation of freedom are to be found in the view that freedom is about the ways in which human beings ought to treat each other and about the ways in which government officials in particular ought to treat citizens. Freedom is a moral and normative notion that only makes sense in a social and political context. On top of that, people often give a pragmatic reason for limiting freedom to human relationships: we can only do something about the denial of our freedom when governments or fellow human beings block our goals and choices or take away the resources we need to achieve our goals and choices. Hence, even if we accept to call obstruction by natural causes a denial of our freedom, there’s no point it since we can’t legislate that a tsunami should not block our goals and should be punished if it does.

This far I can go along with the common view. My objections kick in when people extrapolate the tsunami example to poverty. Poverty, the claim goes, is not – or at least not normally – caused by direct human actions, and therefore it’s not a denial of freedom. In most cases of poverty, it’s not as if we can point to some guy and say: “he made me poor!”. The level of our income and wealth is determined by a gigantic interplay of millions of actions in the global marketplace, by climatic conditions, institutions and policies, our genes, our behavior etc. It’s impossible to point to a precise selection of human beings who are responsible for our poverty. Therefore, although poverty does frustrate our goals and choices just as much as (or perhaps even more than) human actions such as enslavement or oppression, we are dealing here with something that is more similar to a tsunami than to an authoritarian government or an oppressive fellow citizen.

As a first reply to this claim, we can point to cases in which the causes of poverty can be traced to certain very specific human actions and agents: agricultural subsidies, the North Korean famine, politicians voting to abolish unemployment insurance etc. However, let’s grant that it may often be possible to link a particular individual’s poverty to specific actions or agents and that a particular individual’s poverty is often multi-causal. Still, the same may be true of oppression. Furthermore, it remains the case that we can always identify very specific individuals who have the power to end the poverty of other individuals. They may not have caused the poverty of those individuals, or we may not be able to show that they did cause it or that their actions contributed to a great extent, but their failure to use their power to end it is a denial of the freedom of the poor. It may not be their actions that created poverty, but their failure to act certainly does perpetuate it. And although the difference between actions and failure to act or between initiation and perpetuation is important, it’s not important enough to remove responsibility. Because there is responsibility, we can claim that poverty is a denial of freedom even if we adopt the restrictive definition of freedom as the frustration of goals and choices by other human beings and even if we grant that it’s not possible to trace the causes of poverty to deliberate actions.

Go here for a related post.


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